At 43 years old, it seems safe to say that Jay-Z is on top of the world. Within the past year, he's become the face of an NBA basketball franchise, had a beautiful child with his tremendously famous wife, and had a mega-collaboration with Justin Timberlake. Hell, he even picked up the new title of sports agent, as he now manages some of the biggest names in all of sports. With all his recent successes, many were expecting a new Jay-Z album on the horizon, but not many were expecting how he would deliver it.
One $5 million deal with Samsung later, Hova had whipped the hip-hop world into a frenzy, forced all eyes onto the steady stream of lyrics and videos he leaked out, and gotten a platinum record. But with all eyes on Jigga man, was he able to deliver the album we've been waiting for?
Easily the strongest component of this album is the production. Newly signed Rocnation member and longtime collaborator Timbaland handles the majority of the work with some assistance from Pharell Williams, Swizz Beats, Mike Will Made It, and Hit-Boy, among others.
Magna Carta Holy Grail offers some of the best production on a Jay-Z album since The Black Album -- a huge statement considering that Jay-Z is generally pretty good at selecting production. While recent production efforts from Timbaland have tended toward over-produced pop anthems, it seems that the now 41-year-old producer has returned to what made him famous in the first place: knocking hip-hop drums, spaced-out snares, and heavy synths.
Tracks like "Picasso, Baby" showcase a grimy, street side of Timbaland that has never been realized until now. The production of "Heaven" doesn't even sound like something Timbaland would produce -- clearly he still has a few tricks up his sleeve. Timbaland does resort back to his signature sound on the song "Tom Ford," reminiscent of "Jigga What, Jigga Who" by way of its double-time rhythms and syncopated drums patterns.
When others take the production helm, results vary. "BBC", produced mainly by Pharell Williams, has an uninspired circa-2002 Neptunes sound. But on "Oceans" Pharell changes his sound completely, offering dark, eerie synths over pounding 808s, perfectly complimenting Frank Oceans cryptic, yet poignant lyrics.
The Bo1-da produced track, "Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit", features the young producer's signature sound of hard kicks and rapid fire high hats. The song is decent overall, but a verse from Drake, instead of a lazy attempt from Rick Ross, would have better complimented the track. The Dream takes the helm on the powerful, piano laced intro track "Holy Grail," which is one of the better produced songs on the project.
Jay-Z is hit or miss when it comes to his own lyrical approach on this album. Oftentimes, he paints himself as a target of the government or high society, a black sheep of sorts. While this could be accurate, it's hard to believe him when on the very same song he'll go back to gloating about how awesome his life is.
Over Hit-Boy's fantastic production on "Somewhere in America," Jay-z claims that they look down on him because he has new money. It's ironic that he is also still concerned with the "feds lurking"; in this post- NSA surveillance scandal environment, Jay-Z's venture with Samsung is even more scrutinized as a data-mining project. It would be hard to call Jay-Z a hypocrite; he is, after all, a prime example of a man who came from nothing exceeding in this capitalistic society. He's come a long way and has earned everything that he has. But it's hard to swallow some of his rants against the powers that be when he's arguably become the poster child for their practices.
When Jay-Z isn't going off about the plights of high society, it seems that he's still trying to hold on to relevance. Trying to stay relevant and hip is Jay-Z's biggest problem on Magna Carta Holy Grail. While artists like Nas have expanded on the content they choose to rap about (e.g. marriage, divorce, fatherhood, the personal struggles of getting older, etc.) Jay-Z seems to be stuck in the same gear that he has been in for years now. He reminds me of that old guy at the college party who already graduated, trying to convince the younger kids that he's still got it, even though he already has a better job, more money, a beautiful wife -- essentially everything these younger kids are trying to achieve.
On "Somewhere in America", Jay-Z mentions that "Somewhere in America, Miley Cyrus is still twerking." Oddly out of place on the song, but it also does a great job of driving home the point that Jay-Z is, in part, the cause of it. But Jay-Z's use of the word "twerking" is almost as if to say, "Yes, I know who Miley Cyrus is" and, "Yes, I know what twerking is . . . See? I'm not that old!"
On "La Familia" it seems that he is imitating the popular flows of a Trinidad James or a Juicy J, which leaves the song sounding flat. At this point in Jay-Z's career, I feel that evolution is probably the most important aspect. With that said, it seems that Jay-Z continues to remain stagnant in most regards. Is it possible that Jay-Z is running out of things to talk about or perhaps the inspiration to do so?
Not to say that there aren't great lyrical moments here. "Jay-Z Blue" plays out as an ode to his daughter. Here he's finally doing something new -- exploring life through the perspective of a new father -- and even if you have close to a billion dollars, this still can be a frightening thing. Mentioning that he doesn't want to follow in his father's footstep, Jay-Z declares that he will always be in her life, revealing a rare softer moment on the album.
On "Holy Grail" Jay-Z flips the metaphor into the perils of fame and fortune, declaring that it's what destroyed the careers of the likes of MC Hammer and Mike Tyson. The Justin Timberlake-assisted song features an interpolation of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which may turn off a few people. There are plenty of "Tweet-able" lines sprinkled throughout the album, enough to prove that yes, Jay-Z can still rap. On "Part II" Jay-Z and Beyonce pretend that they are outlaws on the run again providing another surefire hit for the radio airwaves. Apparently, Jay-Z has a total of six music videos in the works for the album, so we will eventually see which songs come with visual aid.
Overall, Jay-Z doesn't tread any new ground but still manages to deliver one of his strongest releases in recent years. A re-invigorated Timbaland provides a colorful fresh soundscape for Jay-Z to flow through. MCHG is not for the hardcore hip hop head expecting the grand return of a Reasonable Doubt-era Jay-Z but rather a fair medium between Jay-Z trying to keep up with the latest sounds and trends while maintaining his grandiose image that helped him lay claim to the throne of hip hop.
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The music does not quite live up to the mass amount of hype it created, but it's strong enough to be a decent summertime hip-hop album -- and one of the better albums of 2013 thus far.